Police responding to a swatting case in 2012. (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles…)
The Los Angeles Police Department announced Thursday that it would take the unusual step of no longer issuing press releases or immediately confirming instances of celebrity "swatting," saying intense media coverage seems to be fueling more incidents.
Cmdr. Andrew Smith, who oversees the LAPD Media Relations Section, said the procedural change keeping celebrity swatting calls a secret, was necessary because of concerns about the privacy of the victims as well as the belief that publicizing such incidents targeting individual celebrities was emboldening copycats.
For now on, news outlets must now make a formal public records act request through the department’s discovery unit if they want information about whether officers responded to a radio call at a given address, Smith said.
PHOTOS: Celebrity 'swatting' targets
By law, the unit has 10 business days to respond to such requests, and Smith said the department could reject them if disclosing that information could be seen as compromising an investigation.
"It's our belief that the perpetrators of these false police reports are motivated entirely by the publicity these calls receive," Smith said. "We intend to reduce or eliminate that motivation."
Smith added that the false 911 calls were tying up critical police resources.
The term "swatting" comes from the tactical response typically generated by such calls, which usually include claims that an armed intruder is inside the celebrity's home and that someone has been shot and wounded. Contacts are made via text message, phone or a computer-generated report and are difficult to investigate because perpetrators can disguise the origins of their messages by using multiple computer servers and other technological means.
Celebrity targets usually are not home during such incidents, but confusion can result in injury to responding officers or to innocents who are working or staying at the celebrity's home who may be injured because they do not immediately comply with police commands, authorities said.
In the last several months, there have been more than a dozen prank swatting calls involving celebrities. Most of the targeted homes have been in areas patrolled by the LAPD; others were in Beverly Hills and areas patrolled by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.
Steve Whitmore, spokesman for Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, said that although sheriff’s officials “understand and share the LAPD’s concerns,” the public has “a right to know about law enforcement’s activities.” Nonetheless, he said the Sheriff’s Department would “seriously consider whatever policies the LAPD comes up with.”
“The sheriff is pushing for enhanced punishments regarding false reports of emergencies whereby perpetrators will have to reimburse the municipality for the entire cost of the response,” Whitmore said. “The sheriff believes this legislation is important.”
Beverly Hills Police Sgt. Renato Moreno said that police officials have discussed taking steps similar to the LAPD's, but as of yet, "no decision has been made," he said.
"The goal is to get these incidents to stop," Moreno said.
Loyola Law School Professor Laurie Levenson said she did not believe the LAPD was hostile to the media although the department's action represents "a strong reaction" to the wave of swatting incidents.
"They are in a bit of a bind because people doing this crime are doing it because they want to get attention, and the LAPD doesn't want to feed into that by notifying the media," Levenson said.
But Levenson also noted that the media plays the critical role of keeping the public informed, which includes reporting on the epidemic of swatting calls. She said the LAPD's approach may need refinement.
"It's nearly impossible for the media to do its job if they don't get timely information, so one would hope there could be a compromise," Levenson said. "That's going to take media representatives sitting down with the LAPD and finding some sort of solution that does not involve turning off the spigot of information."
Most of the celebrity calls have come this year, and authorities say that since last year there has been a huge upswing in swatting.
Miley Cryus, targeted last July, was the first major publicized case. That was followed by a wave of calls targeting Ashton Kutcher, Justin Bieber, Tom Cruise, Simon Cowell and the Kardashian family.
The LAPD arrested a 12-year-old boy in connection with the Bieber and Kutcher incidents. He eventually received a two-year sentence, but the publicity surrounding his arrest and prosecution appeared to do little to stop the celebrity swatters.